Category: upper-class names
Move to a different country, you’ll encounter the unfamiliar – new culture, customs, food, weather and attitudes. I was prepared for that when I left America to live in Britain. Even the language –notionally the same in both nations – had its variants: biccy for cookie, jumper for sweater, lift for elevator and the English tendency to jam a silent ‘u’ into the middle of perfectly ordinary words. All of this was to be expected. The one difference I hadn’t anticipated, and that took me by surprise, was in the way British name their children, and the coded meaning of those names.
For obvious reasons, baby names are still THE topic of the day in Britain, following the much anticipated birth and naming announcements of Baby Cambridge. To everyone’s surprise, the string of names was shortened from four to three, beginning with the consistent front-runner George, followed by the somewhat less expected Alexander and Louis.
But despite the diminished thickness of the royal baby’s name sandwich, the whole package will be distilled down to a single nickname. This nickname will be very affectionate. It may also be a little goofy, because that is what the upper classes do in Britain: they give a child a long line of important, reverent names, dripping with heritage, and then reduce them to one irreverent tag.
If you’ve spent any time on Nameberry recently or if you get our newsletter, you’ve seen the ads for my new novel, The Possibility of You. The story of three women at three key moments of the past century dealing with unplanned pregnancies and questions of motherhood, the book required me to spend a lot of time researching the fashion and music, home decoration and child-rearing practices of 1916. And of course, while I was at it, I couldn’t resist digging up information about names.
One of the most fascinating sources I found was the 1916 Social Register, which listed everybody who was anybody in New York. It took both money and social standing to get your name in the Social Register, and so it was a window into upper class naming practices at the time.
One notable trend in evidence, mostly with male names but occasionally with female ones too, was last names used in first place. Long a practice in moneyed families looking to cement ties between fortunes, these surnames are not the faux Coopers and Parkers that rose up over the past few decades but the genuine article: wealthy Great Aunt Fanny‘s maiden name, for instance, or maternal grandfather’s surname.
Of course, if you’re interested in using a surname as a first for your child, it’s best to use one from your own family, honoring someone you love even if you don’t expect them to leave you a million bucks. But failing that, there’s no reason you can’t steal one of these choices. If you like the whole last names as first style, these sound fresher and more interesting than Taylor or Logan.
Choices from the 1916 Social Register:
I love the day once a quarter or so that I allow myself to wallow in the London Telegraph birth announcements. Britberries regularly admonish me not to take the names in the Telegraph to mean anything about typical British baby-naming behavior: Those are names chosen by mostly upper class families, they say, and are examples of a rarefied taste.
Point taken, but I still can’t help but be struck by how different many of the names are from what you’d hear in similar stratospheres of American society: on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, say, or in Beverly Hills.
There are dozens of names that are mentioned over and over in the British birth announcements that are nowhere near as fashionable here. But they’re attractive names, traditional yet quirky, excellent choices for any American parent — or British, Australian, or Canadian one, for that matter — who wants to emulate the English upper classes.
Prime examples from the recent crop of British names:
In a desperate attempt to bond with the teenagers in my family, I have become a devoted watcher of Gossip Girl. And as I take in the adventures of these upper-crusty New York teens, I can’t help but ruminate on their names.
No fewer than five of the actors with major roles have names that are eighties-style upwardly-mobile surname-names, perfectly in tune with the style of the show:
(For the uninitiated, Blake, Leighton, and Taylor are girls, Chace and Penn are boys.)
Two other actors have names in the same vein, but not quite as stereotypical:
Other names that fit this mold, now more commonly heard on twenty-something interns and junior editors and gallery assistants than on babies, include: